Tuesday, June 5, 2012
5e, Tinkering and Dragon Magazine
I was sitting around thinking about earlier editions of D&D, trying to remember what it was like way back then, and comparing it to the advent of 4e, and now Next. I think the big difference is Tinkering.
Let me give you some family history. My father was born to an age where automobiles were still pretty simple things. He spent most of his early years up under a hood, fiddling with engines, tweaking performance - heck - even rebuilding the body if need be to suit whatever wild hair was up his ass. By the 70s, when I was growing up, he had the same love affair with computers, buying the home computer kits, tinkering, soldering, blowing out fuses, and spending thousands of dollars just to replicate PONG and Lunar Lander. There was no off-the-shelf, pre-made computer that your average consumer could buy. Even the most complete kits still had to be handcrafted with love, blood, sweat, and tons of cuss-words.
To me, D&D was the same thing.
When I was first exposed to D&D in 1981, it blew my mind. A game of make-believe with a rules framework so people over eight could still play Bovine Tenders and Indigenous Peoples without stomping off in too much of a huff. How awesome was that?
Actually playing D&D, well, that got me frustrated. The rules, well, they frankly sucked. After a few go-rounds, I found them limiting and not able to create the game I saw in my head. Chalk most of that up to the limits of an 11 year old mind. But luckily, there was Dragon magazine.
It seems like in each issue, crammed somewhere, would be an article about how someone had tweaked or adjusted the rules of D&D to better fit their gaming style. That's where I learned about concepts like Critical Hits and Misses, THAC0, Death and Dying Rules, Zero-level Characters, and god knows what else. I internalized many of these ideas, and the amalgamation became my D&D.
It's funny that so many of those house rules from Dragon Magazine became so standard for so many people that they actually were codified into Second Edition AD&D. If I had really understood that that's all 2e really was - AD&D + Dragon Magazine - then I would have never cursed Zeb Cook's name for two decades.
Another nifty feature of Dragon was that it would contain articles on games other than D&D, and often, games that were not even owned by TSR. That exposed me to a lot of other game and their mechanics, without having to actually plunk down money that I did not have an a teen.
By the time I got back into D&D with 4e, Dragon Magazine was a paltry shadow of it's former self. Sure, it had advice for DMs and such, but it wasn't chock-full of a wide variety of articles on subject ranging from game-design to how to fix a broken mechanic in your game. Dragon had become just yet another corporate shill.
You had to look to blogs for advice on how to kit-bash 4e.
I tried - I really tried to take 4e, learn it, run it as intended, then go and house rule it until the damn game felt like D&D again. But no, it never did. Like Dragon, D&D was just a shadow of itself. The remaining skeleton wouldn't even support changes I tried to make to it very well. D&D was no longer a KIT. It was a highly tuned sports car, with a welded shut hood labeled 'no user serviceable parts,' driving in the wrong direction. Sigh.
The next step, in my mind, is let some really radical game designers in to write Dragon magazine articles that show how to take D&D Next, spin it on it's ear, and spit out marvelous home rules sets that could turn 5e into things completely different that were never intended. Imagine letting good old Zak in and speak through the corporate-horse's mouth? How cool would that be? Imagine letting Monte Cook write an article on game design in Dragon. Now. After all that has gone on. I mean, wow.
Okay, all of that is pie in the sky. Bloggers serve the purpose that Dragon Magazine once did. But imagine if it came from the horse's mouth? Innovation and exploration and wild ass ideas. Tinkering galore. It would set an entirely new tone for D&D. Well, a very old tone.